“Liquor industry sources report bottled cocktails are carving out a bigger share of the market with every passing month. Not only do such products save time, but the pre-bottled [cocktails] are ‘goof-proof’ as well. The trouble with conformity, however, is that while it prevents the sub-standard, it also eliminates the sublime.
No matter. More Americans than ever are choosing convenience over creativity . . . Next to go will be those mixologists who prefer to brew up their own poison. America’s do-it-yourself kick nearly has run its course. How can a wife expect her husband to fix a leaky faucet when the man of the house won’t even bestir himself to mix a mean martini?”
So, can America survive packaged cocktails?
Fortunately, we already have. The above words of warning were written more than fifty years ago – in the September 14, 1965 edition of the Raleigh Register.
As you may have heard, packaged cocktails are hot again. And, while in prior cases the phenomenon vanished almost as quickly as it flashed onto the market, this time could be different.
Why? The biggest difference may be quality. Historically, the struggle with packaged cocktails has been how to bridge the gap between shelf-life and quality. Anyone can make a great cocktail. But, making a great cocktail that does not spoil on the shelf has proven elusive.
The market’s main solution to this dilemma has been “flavored malt beverages” — which some would say are not really cocktails at all because they contain no distilled spirits. Instead, they mimic the flavor of cocktails by adding flavorings to a malt-based alcohol solution. Mike’s Hard Lemonade is an example. A great advantage of malt beverages like these is durability, as they can sit on the shelf without spoiling. Another plus is that, provided the beverages meet certain criteria, the federal government taxes malt-based beverages at a much lower rate than they do those made from distilled spirits.
How much flavored malt beverages taste like an actual cocktail, though, is another question.
A Better Canned Cocktail
In the latest surge of packaged cocktails, flavored malt beverages once again lead the charge. Witness the “hard seltzer” White Claw. Made by the same producer as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, White Claw is a sensation, driving hard seltzer sales growth an estimated 300% in 2019. Like other malt beverages, White Claw is made by fermenting grains to create alcohol, removing the malt characteristics, and then adding water and flavorings.
But like Top 40 music, though popular with the masses, flavored malt beverages are not everyone’s cup of tea. And, thanks to the internet, there is a growing number of enthusiasts who know the difference between a cocktail from distilled spirits and a flavored malt beverage. With a wealth of information just a point and a click away, never before have consumers had so much access to an education in spirits and cocktails.
Some are betting that this increased knowledge of consumers may have created a void in the market: real canned cocktails for people who care how their drinks are made. Sure, many spirit enthusiasts like to make their own cocktails or leave it to a favorite barkeep. But, sometimes convenience is king. And, when it comes to convenience, the shelves are barren for those seeking a quality cocktail.
To fill this void, instead of taking a shelf-stable beverage and trying to make it resemble a cocktail, some entrepreneurs are taking a good cocktail, made from quality ingredients, and making it shelf-stable. One is right here in Charlottesville.
Introducing Waterbird Spirits
Waterbird Spirits is the brainchild of Wilson Craig, who left a Manhattan real estate finance job last year to return home to Charlottesville, determined to make quality canned cocktails a reality. Craig had seen how much convenience mattered to some consumers, but noticed how few quality options there are for packaged cocktails. Craig set out to fix this.
In pursuit of his vision, Craig followed the model of surrounding himself with people who know more than him. Craig is not a distiller, for example. Instead of trying to become one, he relied on experts. For his initial round of cocktails, the base spirit is vodka, and so Craig searched far and wide for the best vodka he could find. Tasting one after another, Craig soon arrived at the opinion shared by many vodka-lovers: potatoes are best. While most vodkas are made from corn or grains, to Craig, potato-based vodkas taste creamier and smoother than those alternatives, which, he says, can be “hot” on the palate. The best of the potato vodkas Craig discovered from a distiller in (where else?) Idaho. Waterbird Spirits will use it in all of its vodka-based cocktails.
Craig is also not a scientist. And so, to tackle the task of ensuring shelf-stability for his cocktails, he again called on experts. In this case, it was a laboratory in Chicago that helped solve the dilemma of how to ensure that Craig’s canned cocktails would not quickly spoil on the shelf. How? Well, that’s proprietary.
Waterbird Spirits’ two flagship cocktails are a Vodka Soda & Lime and a Moscow Mule. The former is just that: vodka, soda water, and oil extracted from limes. With no sugar added, Craig says, the cocktail is light, crisp, and refreshing. The “Moscow Mule”, by contrast, he says, is robust and full-flavored, combining the same vodka and lime with Craig’s own ginger beer recipe, made with real ginger and cane sugar. Both cocktails are naturally gluten-free. Beyond these initial two, Craig has plans for cocktails with other liquors, too, including tequila, rum, and gin.
So, when and where can you get Waterbird Spirits cocktails? Friday September 20, find them at the Barracks Road Kroger. Further outlets soon.
Pick one up to drink while you fix that leaky faucet.